ERP 373: How To Embrace Ambivalence When Making Big Relationship Decisions — An Interview With Rachel Zamore

By Posted in - Podcast May 23rd, 2023 0 Comments

Relationships often confront us with moments of uncertainty, where conflicting emotions and wavering decisions leave us feeling overwhelmed. But, what if we could view ambivalence as an opportunity for personal growth, self-discovery, and empowered decision-making?

In this enlightening discussion with relationship expert Rachel Zamore and Dr. Jessica Higgins, we explored profound insights into navigating the intricate landscape of ambivalence in relationships. From recognizing the significance of self-care to cultivating compassion, this episode provides a roadmap for embracing ambivalence and making impactful relationship choices with clarity and confidence.

If you currently stand at the crossroads of a significant relationship decision, unsure of which path to choose, join us on this transformative journey. Together, we will uncover empowering principles that guide you towards embracing ambivalence and making choices that honor your personal growth, authenticity, and overall well-being.

Rachel Zamore is a leading practitioner in discernment counseling, a process that helps couples on the brink gain confidence and clarity about the next best steps for their marriage. Rachel’s compassionate, nonjudgmental approach empowers honest self-reflection and welcomes each person right where they are. Drawing from 15 years as an integrative psychotherapist, relationship guide (Certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy & Discernment Counseling) and trainer, Rachel coaches individuals and couples online and at private retreats worldwide.

In this Episode

5:55 Igniting a passion: Rachel Zamore’s journey to empower couples in ambiguous relationships

10:19 Rachel’s revolutionary approach to couples in crisis.

12:31 Common mistakes in couples therapy unveiled.

16:51 Appreciating ambivalence and embracing complexity in relationship dynamics.

20:39 The transformative power of providing a supportive container for couples grappling with difficult and anxiety-provoking issues.

25:05 Unpacking the cumulative effect of ambivalence in relationships.

30:26 Discernment counseling: Differentiating hard and soft reasons, and individual growth.

35:59 About Rachel’s intensive sessions and retreats, individual and relational growth.

39:49 Outcomes and statistics of discernment counseling.

45:11 Encouragement and advice for finding clarity and well-being.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Acknowledge your ambivalence and give yourself permission to explore your conflicting emotions and thoughts without judgment.
  • Practice self-care to nurture your well-being and create a stable foundation for decision-making.
  • Manage anxiety by incorporating stress-reducing techniques, such as mindfulness or deep breathing exercises, to help maintain clarity during the decision-making process.
  • Seek support from trusted individuals who have your best interests and the well-being of the relationship in mind.
  • Take responsibility for your actions and behaviors, focusing on personal growth and self-improvement regardless of the decision you ultimately make.
  • Consider individual therapy or coaching to gain insights, clarity, and guidance throughout the decision-making process.
  • Address difficulties in the relationship directly and openly, fostering open communication and a deeper understanding of each other’s needs and desires.
  • Make decisions from a place of wholeness, authenticity, and alignment with your personal values, honoring your own growth and well-being in the process.

Mentioned

Type Of Relationship Support (survey)

Connect with Rachel Zamore

Websites: relationshipcrossroads.com | innerwell.org

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/rachelzamore

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Rachel, thank you for joining us today.

It is a pleasure to be here. I’m delighted to join you.

Yeah. I first learned about you, a client had sent me a podcast where you were the person featured, discussing ambivalence and relationship and discernment. I know we had a conversation and I just felt like there’s a lot of resonance, especially with your EFT training. I’m very much in support and promoting and utilize the principles in much of my work. So really excited about what you’re going to be able to share and help deliver today. 

Great, thank you. 

Yeah. Well, as we turn towards the topic of ambivalence, how did you start getting interested? I know you work with couples and you train therapists, and there’s so much you do. But as we focus in on the topic of ambivalence and relationship, how did this become an interest of yours?

Yeah, it’s a great question. So I had been, for years, really specializing in mind-body therapy with individuals. I had a rich background in mindfulness and studied internal Family Systems and Parts Work and Hakomi, which is all these very experiential approaches to doing individual work. Around 2011 or so, I decided that I really wanted to lean more into the couples’ work. I was licensed as a marriage and family therapist and had dipped my toe a little bit into couples’ work, and for a variety of reasons, got interested in that. 

As part of my training and experiences, I ended up going to a conference, a couples’ therapy conference. While I was there, I did a workshop on working with mixed agenda couples with Dr. Bill Doherty, who is the person who founded Discernment Counseling. I attended this workshop, and I was just mesmerized. I was like, “Oh, my God, this is such an important missing element from our couples’ therapy training!” We have all this training about how to help couples, when both people are like, “Yes, let’s make this work.” So often, the estimate is around 30% of the time, you don’t have that situation. You have one person who’s like, “Yes, let’s make this work,” and the other person who’s getting dragged into therapy and doesn’t really want to be there, maybe he doesn’t feel any hopefulness about the relationship at all. So he developed this process for working with these couples where you have what they call mixed agenda. One person is really there for repair, really wants to save the relationship, really wants to make it work. The other person isn’t sure they want to stay married, let alone even feel like it would be worth the effort to do couples’ therapy. So there are a variety of reasons why couples’ therapy is bound to fail when you have couples committed. 

So I encountered this, and I had just been doing a deep dive and learning about couple therapy, deepening into EFT and other approaches. He had this extensive handout that he gave out after this two-hour workshop; there was no training at the time, there was no way to deepen into this. I literally went home, I transcribed. I had recorded his workshop, I transcribed the entire two-hour workshop, and studied this very long handout in depth, and just started applying it, just started trying it out and using this work with. I’ll get into that later. But basically, there are a lot of differences between Discernment Counseling that he developed and regular couples’ therapy. But I was just on fire about it, super-excited about that. Because it seemed so much needed and so valuable, and it really attended to the different needs of each individual. I loved also just how deeply non-pathologizing it was, which fit so much with the way that I worked and the way that I approach this work at all. So it just felt like a great fit for me and incredibly useful. As I started using it with couples, I found really positive results in the couples who were able to find their way through difficult moments of, like, even figuring out do we want to work on this or do we not, and how do we approach these questions thoughtfully with integrity and intention? Slowing down that moving train that can really happen when there’s a lot of activity and a lot of hurt, when you don’t have the safety to really process things together. So Discernment Counseling offers some different kind of tools to be able to navigate that in a more effective way, and the outcomes seem to just get better all around. 

No kidding! I’m really grateful to have your voice again. Because I think as this becomes perhaps more mainstream, that people will understand there’s another option to get support, that doesn’t mean: “Oh, we’re doing couples’ therapy.” I’m remembering as you’re talking, I’m remembering back when I had my brick and mortar practice in Boulder, Colorado, and I was primarily working with couples. At that point, I think collectively it’s changed a little bit because of all the information age and people are more self-studying than they were at that point. But it seemed as though couples’ counseling is often a last ditch effort, and one person is really out of the relationship. So it is very difficult to really do the work when one is in such an ambivalent or even have left the relationship. When I listened to your podcast, I was like, “Oh, I’m doing this naturally. But I didn’t have a name for it.” I actually think having a name for it is really supportive, because then everybody knows what we’re doing. The differences that you’re going to help us understand between couples’ and Discernment Therapy or counseling, I think is really giving that slowing it down, so this moving train, that doesn’t feel like pressure. I think you’ve talked about pressure. So I love that you’re helping educate us here today. So anything you want to say in response to that?

Yeah, it’s true. I feel like there is a way. So what happened after I attended that workshop was I started using it and started just trying to engage that in my practice, ended up reaching out to Dr. Doherty for some consultation. At that time, he had started this thing at the University of Minnesota where he works, Couples on the Brink project, and they ended up launching a very small training program, which then they ended up launching an online training a few years later, and the certification program. I was actually the first Certified Discernment Counselor; it was kind of fun. So that started growing, and I think it kind of seeped out into the world of relationship coaching in couples’ therapy, some of these principles around it. There are some very specific things that make it quite different. But some of the mistakes that couples’ therapists often make with mixed agenda couples, I think some people are kind of catching up on how to do this. But couples’ therapists are all in it, making relationships work, which makes sense. Like, you have people come in, and they’re like: Okay, we’re here. 

“So one of the big mistakes that couples’ therapists often make is, if there’s a pursuer distance or dynamic going on, where one person is really emotionally withdrawn from their relationship, and they jump in there with the pursuer pursuing the person who’s withdrawing from the relationship, you end up creating a dynamic where you exacerbate the existing problems in the relationship.”

Then you have other folks where they sort of hold back and wait until the couple is on the same page and say, “Okay, I can either help you with the relationship, or I can help you split up. I just need to know which one you want.” But they have totally different needs. Or they can side with the withdrawer and be like, “Oh well, clearly this relation takes two to tango, and the relationship is clearly done if you can’t make them work on it with you,” where they kind of give up early. So there are all these ways, and I love that there are elements of this that you’re finding, like, “Oh yeah, that’s what I’m doing. So there are elements of this that I’m doing.” That was partly what happened to Bill Doherty. He was like, I’m doing some things. 

That’s a little different than couples’ therapy, right?

Yeah. Like, you have lots of time individually with each person, it’s a longer session. You’ve got people coming and going. You start together, you have individual time. You have different ways you’re working with each person based on their needs. What you’re doing that’s so, so different from couples’ therapy, is you’re really welcoming that ambivalence, and some people instinctively know to do that. The goals are totally different. This is sort of a pre-couples’ therapy intervention, where you’re essentially saying, “Okay, we’re not sure, collectively, if we want to move this forward, and we need to figure out our next steps.” Generally, couples that are in really serious distress like this, think that there are two options: stay together, or split up. So what we do in discernment work is, we’re looking at three paths. One is, stay in this as it has been, don’t make a decision right now to work on it or to split up. The second path is to pursue separation or divorce. The third path is to take divorce off the table, really do an all-out effort to restore the relationship to health, often rebuild it truly as a marriage 2.0 from the ground-up, and see what’s possible before making a long-term decision. It ends up creating a lot more room for breath. If you feel like your only choices are staying happy in this marriage, it’s not really working, and you’ve got all this uncertainty about it or reasons why you want to stay or reasons why you want to go. But it’s like choosing basically death or life, and neither one feels like an okay option. So often, people feel like they’re caught between a rock and a hard place, especially when they have children. There’s this sense of like, what to do here? 

So the framework of Discernment Counseling, the fact that it’s short-term, the fact that it’s structured, the fact that it has this very specific agenda that is not to improve the relationship or not actually working on relationship repair. It’s really specifically a process to say, “Okay, let’s look at this, let’s see if we even want to do another session.” Up to a maximum of five or six sessions, intentionally short-term. It makes it really low stakes for the person who is leaning out of the relationship, and makes it viable.

Yes. I’m really appreciating that you’re giving range here, because I do think when we’re caught in this binary Yes or No, it can be really difficult, and we can go back and forth. So not only is Discernment Counseling providing another option, that even before that happens, there’s a lot of room and space to explore the ambivalence, and really make room for that, which is so important, which gets back to what you were describing around the non-judgement. 

So if we can turn towards ambivalence, I wonder, can you give some context to this as people are listening? Maybe you can say a little bit about what ambivalence typically looks like, and then perhaps if you can give some context to when it’s a concern. Because sometimes, people might be like, is this a sign or is it normal?

Yeah, that’s so great. One other thing I just wanted to mention, one of the reasons why I was so drawn to this work, is because it really holds the complexity of our values, lives, competing priorities, in a way that just feel so important. It’s so tempting to just be like, “Oh, pursue your bliss and be happy.” But there are other values and ethical considerations, especially when there are other people impacted and involved. It’s just I love how it holds from a real kind of grounded in values place of being able to navigate really deeply complex issues. So I just wanted to name that.

Yes, and it welcomes the shadows. It welcomes the things that are hard to discuss, or feel unwelcomed, and really providing a lot of room and space to make that visible. Because that’s where we can really have more contact, that authenticity, that deepening, and make that really available, making contact with that. 

Yeah. So often, the people who are leaning in and really wanting to save their relationship, are very resistant to the idea of Discernment Counseling and discernment coaching. Because they’re like, “We can’t give this any oxygen. If this is given oxygen, it’s going to make it real.” What I have found again and again, is that the people who are able to hold their center, the ones who really are anxious about the idea that their spouse is considering, has a foot out the door. It is a really stressful time. It’s hard to bring your best self when that’s going on. The people who can say, “Okay, I will make space for your ambivalence, I will honor this by engaging this process with you.” There is something about being able to actually honor those shadows, make room for it, without making it wrong. Like, if somebody is considering leaving their marriage, that is not something most people think of lightly. That is a huge, torturous often, process and decision to be in, all the things. So for the leaning in spouse, being able to have the courage to step into that crucible with your partner, or to even make space for them being in that space, it helps uncook often from that intense cycle that’s going on, the negative cycle, that the only option is out for one person. So it’s a little counterintuitive sometimes. But I digressed.

No, you’re breathing life and fresh air. I mean, the support that I’m sure you’re offering along with your colleagues practicing this work, you’re providing such a container and ground to maybe offer that stability to look at these things that are so, so difficult and anxiety-provoking. That even the more pursuer or anxious one might feel supported in that, that they can hold a little bit more and then be able to see what comes through in that.

Right. Part of that work too, the work with that person who is leaning in, who has a such deep desire to make it work, is coaching them. So much of the discernment process is helping zoom lens out, helping take a breath and be able to see what’s happening systemically, so that each person can be aware of their own part in that relationship dynamic and dance and how. So for that person who is in that pursuing place, being able to slow down and get curious about the experience of their partner who’s doing something that is hurting them. But there’s also a reason for it, and getting curious about it is happening for you, and being able to be in that space where they can then take a cue too, and be able to start getting curious and maybe even validating, like, “Oh, it makes sense that this would be hard for you, the way that this has been going.” So each person being able to learn something about themselves and about what’s happened to their marriage, what is happening, that’s part of why the outcomes are almost always better, as a result of doing this. Whether they stay together and work on it, and they have this huge head start for their couples’ work they do. Or that they decide to split up, and there’s more understanding, more compassion, and more grace.

There’s such grace if you can take the pressure of we’ve got to stay married, or whatever the pressure is, and the fears and associations around that. If we can turn towards this, and the grace and the space that we offer, that’s so relieving and relationally supportive. It occurs to me, and we want to talk about ambivalence, but that this is likely a contributing factor to when couples’ therapy doesn’t work, when so many people are like, “Oh, it didn’t work.” But when one person is not really bought in.

It’s destined to not, when that happens. Good couples’ therapy can be incredibly effective. I’m certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy and love that work too. It’s beautiful work, being able to support that rich, deep, transformative healing that can happen in good couples’ therapy. But when you are starting off without both people deeply feeling supported, right where they are and meeting them right where they are needing to validate, which is one of the things that I think EFT is actually really great with. I know that there are other approaches to therapy too, that are also good with validation. But one of the things, if a couple contacts me, and this has happened recently, where they’re like, “Okay, our marriage is in a really difficult place, and we both want to work on it, we want to do Discernment Counseling.” I’m like, why don’t you do couples’ therapy? It’s not for everybody. It really is specifically when one person has a foot so out the door that they’re not even sure they want to do couples’ therapy. So it’s really being able to say, what’s the right medicine for where you’re at right now? 

But it’s true. Because couples who do jump into couples’ therapy and don’t have a couples’ therapist who is intuitively skillful with navigating that ambivalence and gives themselves permission, and we don’t get trained in couples’ therapy, except sometimes during an introductory session, to meet individually. But if you don’t have the safety for emotional vulnerability, and if you are going to invite somebody to get really honest with themselves, really curious and vulnerable about: “What is my part in this? What would I likely bring with myself into a future relationship that I love in this one? What are some of the ways that I have collapsed this narrative into something really over-simplistic, that doesn’t account for the full breadth of what is really happened here?”

I’m so glad you said that. Because if I can chime in, in my experience, when people are experiencing this high degree of ambivalence, there’s a cumulative effect, if we look at what’s been building for maybe even years, that hasn’t been really addressed or talked about. So being able to give a lot of that space to unpack and really explore.

Yeah, it’s so important. I think that that safety that we’re able to create in the discernment process, where I am primarily spending the time meeting individually with people, and then we’re weaving it back together. That part is really important too, that weaving between. I won’t share what somebody said specifically, but I can share an insight. “They don’t care at all!” I’m like, “What gives you that? That’s not the impression that I’m getting, but help me understand why you are. What’s telling me that, whatever the thing is?” There is an important weaving. But I do think that the safety, especially if you are trying, it’s high stakes. This is high stakes stuff, and if you had both people in the room, you wouldn’t get to that level of vulnerability that fast, you wouldn’t be able to do that. Because they have such different needs and agendas, so the leaning out person really needs a safe space where they can explore their ambivalence and really work through whatever the thing is. It might be things that they can’t say in front of their partner. Like, “I’m repulsed by his body, I don’t know how to deal with that. Or I’m actually in love with this other person, and I can’t figure out if I’m willing to give up that affair or not.” I mean, sometimes it’s really complex things. Sometimes it’s like, “I just have so much ancient resentment, I don’t know if I’m over it, or whatever the thing is.” But being able to unpack that without the reactivity in the room is super important. 

Should I get back to answering your question? 

Yes, please. 

Okay, about ambivalence. It is perfectly normal to sometimes be ambivalent in your relationship, and it is not necessarily a danger sign that they your marriage is in trouble, that your relationship is on the brink. One of the ways I like to think about this is, is it poetry or is it a plan? Thinking about when it shows up, that ambivalence, that like, “Oh, I just can’t anymore with this person.” Is that sort of a passing moment of steam release, a little bit of a flight instinct kicking in and a moment of distress? Or is this an ongoing, pervasive sentiment that you’re having, or a way that you are starting to actually, concretely, think about leaving, and next steps? Sometimes, it’s really clear. Like, “Oh, this is a way that I self-soothe in moments that are really hard.” That truly is not something that you need to be concerned about. Everybody has different ways that they navigate distress, and some people tend towards a little more drama in their inner world, and some people tend towards less drama in their inner world. Sometimes it can feel really liberating to remember that you could leave and that could be an option, and then you can choose to stay. It is not necessarily a sign of anything to be worried about. Sometimes, it is, and it depends. So it’s complex, as we are. 

Then the other piece too, that I would say about that is, in the discernment work, we talk a bit about the difference between hard reasons and soft reasons for considering leaving a relationship. Hard reasons being things like abuse, ongoing affairs, addiction that’s not getting addressed, things like that. Things that are safety and wellbeing issues at their core. Then there are soft reasons, which are things like, we have grown apart, or we don’t communicate well, or we have different sexual desires, or incompatibility, or things like that. Those are the things that, with effective couples’ therapy, can often be addressed and resolved in really deep ways. So just thinking too about are there safety issues at play? If there are, take that seriously, please. Talk to somebody, get some help. With passing fantasies, those are like, “Oh, what a slob! I can’t believe he left his socks out again.” Those moments of frustration are normal and they’re real, and you might need to find different ways of communicating about your different needs, that housekeeping or whatever the thing is, and get the responsiveness that you need. 

C:\Users\Lenovo\Desktop\Pics\gcouple2.jpeg

“Because sometimes those little annoying things actually are symptoms of bigger patterns in a relationship that you would do well to address. It doesn’t mean your relationship is about to fail, but it would improve your relationship probably.”

The socks are never about the socks. It’s about do I feel respected and cared for, and perhaps all those things? So I hope that answered your question. 

Thank you. It gives us more context too, when we’re talking about ambivalence, what you’re typically seeing, and what it means based on your vantage point, having done this work for a long period of time. You mentioned earlier, being able to distinguish between Discernment Counseling and couples’ therapy, and this might be helpful for us to give some differentiation here. Even with, you called them the hard and the soft reasons, so in the Discernment Counseling, is this also something you would help support when there are hard reasons, whether or not it’s accessing other supports or safety? Is this something you address?

Yeah. One of the screening, so for the discernment process, we do start with a screening for each person individually, and actually, there being act of violence is a rule-out, coercion as well. Like, we want to make sure we’ve got people coming into this process who really have free will, who have the safety where they could make a supportive choice. So Discernment Counseling is not the appropriate place to be if you are dealing with an unsafe situation. However, when folks come in. It’s not always clear also. What is an intractable character thing of my partner? Do I want to stick around while they do the individual developmental healing or trauma healing that they need to do? Do I want to stay by their side while they get treatment for X, Y, or Z? Sometimes there are big questions like that about, like, what is realistic to expect? 

One of the things that I always say about the process for couples who are trying to decide between these three paths, usually, most couples say, “I can’t stand the way it’s been. That’s what I know for sure. And what I don’t know is, do I have the energy and motivation and hopefulness, to really put energy into working on this and commit to working on this for a period of time before making a long-term decision?” Now, if somebody is on the brink, and they’re ready to leave their relationship, it is not realistic for them to say, “Sign me up for another 20 years, I’m good to go.” You can’t know that yet. That would be basically saying, keep me in the status quo. So they’re trying to figure out, what is their next path? 

So when somebody is looking at what is my next best move, we’re definitely going to be looking at all those hard and soft reasons, all the reasons that come up. It’s like, whatever is showing up, we’re going to be looking at. I mean, the goals for Discernment Counseling are to get clear about your next best step, with a deeper understanding of yourself and the relationship. 

“The definition of success is a deeper understanding, and being able to move forward with clarity and confidence and integrity and intention. That’s the goal. It’s not specifically to stay married or to not stay married, or to work on it or not work on it.”

So what I always say is that, this is your time. This is time for you to do your own growth work, your own relationship growth work, in the context of this marriage. You may find that, because we’re looking at what’s your part in this? So also do move into working on the relationship come in with their own personal agenda for change. It’s like, what do I need to work on in myself? So part of what I love too is it holds the attachment frame and the relational systemic frame, from couples’ therapy. But it also holds this individuation differentiation frame of the parts, like, “Okay, I have to own my own parts in this and take responsibility for myself.” There’s some personal accountability. So for each person, they’re coming in saying, “Oh, this is how I may have contributed to some of the negative dynamics that have gotten us to this point. Here is my part, what I want to work in in myself, that will make me better in my next relationship, whether that’s with this spouse where we do a redo, or with any future person.” So people can step into that choice to work on it, often with a sense of like, “I’m doing this for me, and we’ll see about the relationship and we’ll see where we end up, and we’ll reevaluate, and just have more information.” So it takes some of the pressure off too, about like, “I have to choose that I’m in it. You’re in it, you’re in it to work on it and to grow yourself, and use this relationship to grow yourself, and then you get to decide and see what your partner brings to that process as well.

Yes. As I’m listening to you, Rachel, it’s almost as though this could be helpful for everyone to do this process before doing couples’ work, even if ambivalence is not super high. Because I do think sometimes when people come into couples’ work, they’re so hyper-aware of the things that they’d like their partner to improve, but perhaps haven’t had the opportunity, or maybe haven’t had the mindset of really looking at their contribution and what’s in it for them and their opportunity for healing and growth as an individual, and what gets activated and triggered within them. So I just think what a priming!

I know, it’s really great for just that setup. But there’s this front-loading that happens, and the stakes are high enough that you can get people to really focus and dive in like that, and we do these extended sessions. So the first meeting, when this was originally designed, it was a two-hour first session, and then 90-minute subsequent sessions. I now do two and a half hours, and two-hour subsequent sessions. I also designed and developed a private destination retreat model. So sometimes couples would be like, we want to really focus on this without the distractions of daily life. So I will either have couples come to me, or I will go meet them somewhere without distractions. We schedule these sessions out over four or five day, so there’s plenty of spaciousness in between the meetings, so that people can really take that time for introspection. Couples will often stay in separate rooms, so they have lots of solo time. Obviously, it’s sort of a high-end offering. But for those who can do that, it can be really great. For the couples who I’m working with remotely, I’m doing most of this online now, they have that space between their meetings, which is also really valuable, and being able to have that time just to get that clarity. For the couples who do end up splitting up, there’s just so much more ease and closure and connectedness. For those who do work on it, you’re right, it’s so primed. It’s an interesting thing to think about, about how could some of those principles be incorporated into a therapy process, and perhaps there’s a model that’s doing that, I don’t know. But it’s certainly something that philosophically I bring into my work all the time. Yes,

Yes, me too. People who listen to the podcast regularly, every introduction, I’m talking about it being both an individual intimacy journey of growing oneself, and also the relational intimacy and growth; they are twofold. I love the mindset and the intentionality that you bring, and it’s really helping orient people and directing. Because I think the other way of doing it, and really expecting your partner to change or really putting so much pressure for it to be a certain thing, that I think loses the essence of what we’re really after in the end goal anyway, which is this deep, authentic intimacy and knowing. Well, is there anything else you want to distinguish between the couples’ therapy and Discernment Counseling?

Well, let me say, the goals are different. In terms of, we’re really looking at the decision-making process, and each person is owning their part in that. Even that person who comes in and they’re like, I definitely want to save it! I’m like, okay, let’s slow that down. Because sometimes I’ve had people where their partner is cheating on them all the time, disrespecting them. I’m like, “Help me understand why you’re so desperate to save this. What’s happening here? Help me understand.” So sometimes we do have to slow that down. But the difference is, it’s brief. It’s low-commitment. For couples who choose to do a package or choose to do an intensive retreat, obviously, they’re committing to that chunk. But generally, couples choose each time if they’re going to do another session up to a maximum of five or six. It’s short-term. Yeah, I think we’ve kind of covered the differences. 

Great! Then do you want to speak a little bit more? You’ve mentioned the outcome and the goal, and I know you also have some stats that you can help us. Do you want to speak a little bit more about what you typically see, as far as outcomes with Discernment Counseling?

Yeah. I don’t have the numbers right in front of me, so I’m going to ballpark them. But I think that the outcomes from the Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota, I think it was something about 47% of couples who go through the process choose to work on the relationship. I don’t have that right in front of me at the moment. But 41%, I think chose path two, which is to split up, and I think about 11%, I’m not sure if that math all works out. But I think it was around 11% who choose not to make a decision at that time. The outcomes that I’ve seen in my work also tend to be the highest percentage of couples who end up choosing to really do an all-out effort to rebuild and restore the relationship to health, which is kind of amazing, given that, when you think about it, it sounds like it’s not that far off from each other. But these are couples, often, many of them have already either filed for divorce, or already separated. I’ve had a number of couples come to me for discernment work, who are already living in different places, have been separated for a while, about to finalize their divorce. Sometimes it’s people who are just flirting with the idea of splitting up, or I don’t know if I really wanted to couples’ therapy. So there’s the gamut. 

But I think that it’s really one of these things where the outcomes do tend to be better, but it just helps also prevent premature and unnecessary divorce decisions. There’s some good research out there showing that a pretty significant percentage of people end up having regret after pursuing divorce, even those who initiated divorce. It’s something like 11% of people regret having done that. They did some research from the University of Minnesota, that about one in nine couples that were already through the divorcing process enough that they required parent a co-parenting class, one in nine folks from matched couples, when they looked at these surveys, both spouses indicated some belief that their marriage could still be saved with hard work. About one in 10, both spouses independently said, if some kind of reconciliation process were offered, I’d be interested. These were couples who already had filed for divorce. So this process is one that, like I said, just to help slow things down, helps people be able to find. There was a family judge in Minnesota, who was the one who contacted Bill Doherty and got this whole thing going. He was curious, because he kept seeing these couples coming in his chambers, and he’s like, “I’m not clear why these people are getting divorced, some of them.” He said, on the highway to divorce, there are no exit ramps and rest areas.” So this was designed to create that.

Well, it’s really standing out to me how you’ve talked about it being high stakes, and also that Discernment Counseling is really offering another opportunity to create something new. While that might seem obvious or intuitive, as we’re kind of talking about right here, right now, but I think when we’re in it, especially culturally, we often don’t even know that that’s an option. So the exit or the divorce as an option can be a real stand for “I don’t want to do this version of it, and I don’t have anything else. So I’m left with these two choices.” So it seems incredibly important to really explore, like we’ve been discussing, to give people more option, and also understand. Because when couples are in or partners are in a reactive, highly conflictual, or just the dynamic is so disconnected, I mean, what you’re speaking to about the percentage of people that would be interested in doing reconciliation work or having an opportunity to take a pause or do any of this work, there’s an intuitive sense that, like, “I still love you. It’s just really crappy what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. But I still care.” It’s really difficult to hold both of that. I think sometimes with all the messiness of the dynamic, that sense of goodwill gets lost, or it’s hard to stay connected to. But I think this does give a lot of room and space. I know I keep saying that, but It’s just so important. 

Okay. Well, I know that you have a few things That you want to say potentially about what you would advise or encourage someone who’s leaning in, more of that pursuer or someone who might have a little bit more of those anxious tendencies, or even the person that is leaning out. You can start with whatever one feels best. But any encouragement you want to offer for people?

Sure. So I would say, if your partner is expressing ambivalence and that is stressing you out, it totally makes sense. It’s a really hard thing to be sitting with, it can create a lot of anxiety and insecurity. The stress of that uncertainty can sometimes bring out not the best behaviors in a person, if they’re feeling desperate or anxious. So for that person, I would say, take a deep, deep breath, focus on your own self-care and wellbeing, work on managing your anxiety so that you don’t exacerbate the negative relationship dynamics, it’s really hard, when you’re feeling threatened, to zoom that lens out, to feel safe enough that you can take perspective. Just taking that breath and taking that space can often help so much. Because if you are anxious, the ways that your anxiety shows up in the relationship may be causing your partner to lean out even more. So being able to sort of take, with lots of self-compassion, take some responsibility for that and get your own house in order. Focus on the things that help you feel whole, that help you feel grounded. Spend time with people who love you, and are showing you that. 

“Try not to pursue, and try also not to distance. So hold that middle space. Because the more that you can be like a big oak tree holding that grounded space in the midst of the winds that are blowing, the more likely it is that your partner can work through whatever it is that they’re needing to work through.”

It won’t be about you, don’t make it be about you. So take care of you, so that you can just be grounded, as grounded as possible, present. To be responsive to your partner’s concerns and curious about what’s going on, in a way that you don’t lose yourself and that you’re not pressuring them. Sometimes it can be helpful to get a great individual therapist to help you in that, or to work with a coach who is familiar with discernment. Lots of discernment counselors also do something called hopeful spouse coaching, and that’s certainly something that is available. But it

This sounds like a whole retreat, and if I reflect on my own anxious tendencies and what that required of me, I know there was grief in that process, there was really like how to nurture the parts of me that I hadn’t really felt in the past. It’s really hard work, and it’s so rewarding, regardless of the outcome. Like, I fought back, I didn’t abandon myself.

Yes! Again, all this work, it’s all growthful. If you think of relationship as a path of growth, then it’s being here for it. Like, “Okay, here I am on this journey of life. It’s messy sometimes, and relationship will grow you like nothing else.” So being in that place where you may not have learned early on how to nurture yourself and have a hand on your own back, and doing some parts, it can be really great for that, and other self-compassion practices, mindfulness can be really helpful practice to get grounded and be able to just watch what’s arising without having to act on it. So focusing on self-care and wholeness; not pursuing, not distancing. Those are the things that I would advise somebody who is leaning in. It’s also course from a grounded place, sharing with your spouse or partner information about, “Hey, there’s this thing called Discernment Counseling, maybe this is something we could look at,” if they’re not interested in doing couples’ therapy with you. Because they may be actually saying like, “Yeah, I actually want to do that.” But if not, Discernment Counseling might be just the right next step. 

For folks who are feeling ambivalent, if you’re that person who has a foot out the door, and you’re just not sure if you want to keep going, want to work on it any more, again, I’m sure it makes sense. There are reasons why you feel the way you do, and everything makes sense. There’s nothing in human dynamics that is not going to make sense for one reason or another. For you, I would suggest, befriend that part of yourself that kicks up a flight response when you’re feeling stressed, frustrated, hopeless, and just bringing compassionate curiosity to your own inner experience. Allow the impulse to arise, that exit flight impulse to arise, and let it pass away without needing to do anything just right now. This is a place of if you are feeling reactive, and you’re having that flight response kick in, this is assuming safety. If you’re unsafe, let that flight response kick in and go. You don’t have to take care of that. But otherwise, watching that impulse arise, and seeing does it pass away? How do I get myself grounded and whole, before making any long-term decision that has massive implications? I would suggest also trying to address whatever it is that’s causing you difficulty in the relationship directly. Sometimes, and this has happened more times than I can even count, I have somebody come in and they say, “I’ve been miserable for years. No, I never said anything about it, but I can’t take it anymore. I’ve got to go.” I’m like, okay. That’s part of that. Like, oh okay. So there’s something familiar about that, about bottling it up and holding it. That’s something that might be worth thinking about. 

“Maybe you could try speaking, I’d say, for your parts, instead of from your parts. Being able to say, like, I have a part of me that is feeling this way. Rather than just being like, you’re terrible, or whatever, embodying that feeling.”

But attending to the issues and dynamics that are challenging before they become huge obstacles, if you can, if you haven’t gotten too far. I’d say if the thoughts of ambivalence or feelings start showing up more regularly, I would suggest considering trend coaching or therapy with somebody whose expertise is in relationship dynamics, or in discernment, if you’re really out the door and don’t want to do that. Also, just knowing it’s okay and normal to have feelings, all the feelings, and that doesn’t necessarily indicate your marriage is in trouble. If your marriage is in trouble, and you really are eyeing the exit, I would encourage you to just take a pause. I also have on my website, at RelationshipCrossroads.com, considering divorce do’s and don’ts. I would suggest if you are listening, and that is you, just go download, to take a look, and you can reference it. It’s got a number of hot tips and notes to self about what to do. 

One of the things I also just want to name here, for both people, the person who is leaning in and the person is leaning out, be mindful about who you share with. It is really important to get good support, and you should get good support, and you should also have discretion in who you turn to. Because different people in your life will have their own agenda, their own level of self-awareness, and their own ability to hold the complexity and nuance of your situation, especially if they’re only hearing about it from you and from your distressed parts, because they won’t necessarily have the whole picture. So if you’re going to share with somebody, I would encourage you to find somebody who has your back and your partner’s back, and has the back of your relationship and your family. That doesn’t mean that they have an agenda to keep you together either; they have an agenda to support a process of unfolding, of self-awareness, of self-discovery, of healing and growth, whatever the outcome is going to be. So I would encourage you to just be mindful about who you include as a confidant if you are in a place of significant distress, and also that it is important to have some confidant, whether that’s a coach or therapist, or a dear friend, or clergy, or whoever is your person. But it is important to also not to just keep it all inside. Because it can be really isolating, especially if you’re feeling like, “Everybody thinks my marriage is awesome, and I don’t think it is.” That’s a really hard place to be.

“So it’s important just to take good care, focus on your wellbeing, focus on your wholeness. Because you want to make an important life decision from the best in yourself, and the things that help you feel whole and grounded and anchored into your own goodness, and connected in the world in a way that feels authentic and true and whole and aligned with your values, that’s where you want to be making life-impacting decisions from.”

Absolutely, such great wisdom and advice to really be aware of these different aspects when seeking support. So thank you for giving voice to that. Rachel, you’ve really directed people towards your website to get the do’s and don’ts. I’ll make sure to have that link on today’s show notes. You offer so much more. So I’d love to turn towards how people can get in touch with you, what you’re offering. What would you like to encourage?

Yeah. If anybody wants to reach out, my website is RelationshipCrossroads.com. My email, if you want to find me there, is [email protected]. I am happy to hear from folks who are interested in Discernment Coaching processes, both online and private retreats. I also am available for short-term individual coaching with folks who are leaning in or leaning out. Though I would always recommend, if you can get your partner to do the discernment process together, that would be even better for yourself. Happy also to offer, I do consultation and supervision for therapists. So also available for that if anybody wants to reach out to me. I’ve also done some presentations to mediators and other folks who are encountering folks who are potentially looking for divorce but might have some ambivalence about that. 

Yes, thanks for acknowledging that. I know I have attorneys that listen, and just really giving some space around where the referrals might be able to come from. Because this is, as we’ve talked about today, so incredibly valuable before putting into the couples’ work when maybe both people aren’t on that page.

Yeah. One other thing I should note, and this is relatively more recently, so I have another website, InnerWell.org, and I’ve just started doing some discernment work around things that are not relationship-specific. Because I’m so interested in this intersection of how we make decisions, over the last number of years, I’ve been studying a lot around decision-making, and that interplay between intuition and data and stakeholders, and how we navigate decisions that are not necessarily just about our own personal happiness, that have ethical implications that are just more nuanced, whether they’re in business or in life. So that’s more through my individual coaching work. So I do also leadership coaching.

Mixed agendas that come in many different environments and industries.

Exactly. So anyhow, I’m also broadening my discernment work a little more broadly. So for folks who are navigating other important life decisions around career or moves or family decisions, things like that, or business decisions. I used to be a business owner, so I have this entrepreneurial background also. So decisions about starting, stopping, growing, pivoting, restructuring, big life decisions and business decisions, I’m here for it. So they can reach out to me anytime if they’re interested.

Great. Well, I’ll have your email and your website. I think this is just so important. One of the things I really appreciate about you, Rachel, is you have this systems’ perspective, and you’re really making it all welcome. I mean, that’s one of the things that’s really standing with me is, so often we want to push away the thing that’s uncomfortable, and ambivalence being part of that. But that is quite the opposite of what we’re really talking about here today and giving space for that. So I love that. I was thinking about decision-making too as you were talking earlier, just helping people really look at all the elements and get the support to really do that in a really mindful way. So wonderful. Well, thank you so much.

It’s such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for having me on the show.

Yeah, it’s been an honor. Thank you.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching